When the three whistles finally sounded at the jam-packed Brisbane Park and a fierce, intense 90 minutes of soccer finally concluded, the world was shocked. Nigeria, a team that hadn’t won two games in a single Women’s World Cup since 1999, shocked Australia, one of the tournament’s favorites and the World Cup’s co-hosts. It was amazing, shocking, eye-opening.

Although Nigeria, affectionately nicknamed the Super Falcons, boasts talented players; Atletico Madrid’s Rasheedat Ajibade, free agent Ashleigh Plumptre, and Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala all play for the team; they often come up short on the world stage.

However, their recent victory represents not only a turning point for the team but also for the country and women’s soccer in Africa.

Entering the World Cup

The Nigerian women’s team played its first match in 1991 when women’s soccer entered a boom in popularity and income. Since then, the team has dominated African soccer; they have won 11 WAFCONs out of a possible 13.

However, the team frequently hits road bumps when they play outside of Africa. They have never scored more goals than they’ve conceded and rely on conservative, defense-oriented tactics to keep games close. Although the gap between Nigeria and the best of the best is closing, Nigeria is still some steps away from making a deep run for the first time.

Despite qualifying for the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the Nigeria women’s national team has come off as underwhelming under manager Randy Waldrum. In the recent 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria finished second in their group. They barely beat Cameroon in the quarterfinals to qualify for the World Cup before losing in penalties to Morocco (who finished second in the tournament).

A poor showing at the 2023 Women’s Revelations Cup, with two losses to Mexico and Colombia and a solitary win against Costa Rica, only added to the Super Falcons’ uncertainty.

Although wins in friendlies against Haiti and New Zealand restored confidence, a messy opening game draw with Canada worsened it. After the first matchday, Nigeria needed either favorable results from the Canada-Ireland game or a strong performance against Australia to get a strong position in their group.

Nigeria rolls to a thrilling victory

Nigeria faced Australia, a contender to win the Women’s World Cup and the tournament’s cohost. The stadium was almost at max capacity, and the atmosphere was unreal.

Unsurprisingly, Australia took the opener in the 45th minute, with Emily van Egmond rolling in a well-hit shot past goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie. However, Uchenna Kanu responded in stoppage time of the first half. The Racing Louisville striker volleyed a deflected Ajibade shot, and although she didn’t get the contact she wanted, it snuck into the bottom right corner.

Nigeria continued their scoring spree in the 65th minute when Houston Dash’s Michelle Alozie tipped a header to Ajibade. Ajibade nodded a shot to goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold, but she couldn’t hold on to it. Center-back Osinachi Ohale nodded it in despite a brutal kick to the face from an Australian defender.

Oshoala, who started the game on the bench thanks to a knock she suffered against Canada, tapped in the third in the 72nd minute. A defensive mishap from the Australians let Oshoala get the ball in a dangerous place with Arnold off her line. The prolific goalscorer rounded the keeper and converted her shot from a tight angle.

Although center-back Alanna Kennedy headed home a Kyra Cooney-Cross-sent corner in the tenth minute of stoppage time, Nigeria’s lead was too big to cross. The Super Falcons left the stadium with one of its biggest wins in team history, one no one could have expected.

Significance of Nigeria success at Women’s World Cup

Nigeria’s victory over Australia means so much because it gives the Super Falcons some sort of legitimacy; or a step closer to it. The team is well-followed across Nigeria, but the team doesn’t pull in a lot of profit nor get the resources the Super Eagles or high-ranking European women’s teams get.

The Nigeria Women’s Football League suffers due to a lack of infrastructure and attention. Waldrum still says a prevailing domestic bias surrounds heads of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF).

The most pressing issue is the payment dispute that is plaguing the team. The team got FIFPRO, the player union for soccer players, involved in their case. The NFF is allegedly holding onto unpaid wages for the members of the national team. It’s uncertain when or if the team will get their wages back.

Nigeria’s win drew a lot of eyes to these issues and raised awareness as the team fight for better resources and playing conditions.

On the field, Nigeria’s victory ushers in a new generation of African national teams that won’t lose as much. Zambia and Morocco’s heavy losses look bad on paper, but 2022 WAFCON champions South Africa just pushed heavyweights Sweden to a stoppage-time winner and look set to shock Argentina today at eight.

African soccer is rapidly advancing and catching up with the world. Stars like Oshoala, Ajibade, Real Madrid’s Zambian attacker Racheal Kundananji, Racing Louisville’s South African winger Thembi Kgatlana, and more are all making a name for themselves. This win only reinforced that fact.

What’s next

The Nigeria team will face Ireland next on the third matchday of the Women’s World Cup group stage. With anything but a loss against Ireland, Nigeria will advance to the knockout stage for the second straight time. They should go through to the round of 16. Nigeria would only exit early by losing against Ireland, Canada not beating Australia, and tiebreakers bouncing Nigeria from the competition.

The Super Falcons’ pay dispute still has not been resolved yet. Head coach Randy Waldrum told the press about unpaid wages for him, his technical staff, and his players. The players agreed to pause talks to avoid distractions during the World Cup. However, the issues have resurfaced following Nigeria’s success.

Australia faces Canada needing either a win or a draw, along with Nigeria’s loss to Ireland and favorable tiebreakers. Chelsea star Sam Kerr will be back from injury after she missed Australia’s first two games through a calf injury.

PHOTO: IMAGO & Sports Press Photo